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STERN PREPARED FOR `NO SEASON'

NBA commissioner David Stern was smiling and optimistic when he walked into a negotiating session with the players association at a midtown hotel. Four hours later, he emerged grim-faced.

"We are resigned to the fact that there won't be a season," Stern said after labor talks broke off Thursday evening with the two sides no closer to an agreement.The parting between the union and the league was more acrimonious than at any time since they began negotiating more than a year ago. Stern said the union refused to negotiate; Simon Gourdine, the union's executive director, denied it.

Whatever the case, the NBA edged closer to the same kind of labor disaster that befell baseball and hockey.

Team owners instituted a lockout July 1, three months before the scheduled opening of training camps, and Stern pledged the lockout would continue indefinitely.

"We encouraged our owners today to reach across and show our players we could in effect save the season, and the answer is, we can't," Stern said. "We will remain in a lockout."

Gourdine says his door remains open. However, if no new deal is reached by midnight Tuesday, the union will relinquish its authority as the players' bargaining agent, joining a group of dissident players who want to dissolve the union.

"It was the conclusion of our player reps and officers that these (counterproposals by the NBA) would be unacceptable to the majority of our players," Gourdine said.

With the likelihood of a new labor deal all but gone, the league will await the outcome of a union decertification vote in early September.

Before Thursday's meeting, Stern called the dissidents' assertion that the lockout would end once the union decertified "the big lie" told to players by some agents and attorney Jeffrey Kessler.

"The first big lie was that there wouldn't be a lockout," Stern said. "Why Mr. Kessler has any remaining credibility is totally beyond me."

Kessler is representing Patrick Ewing, Michael Jordan and other players in a pending federal antitrust suit against the league.

"If we don't get a deal done," union president Buck Williams of the Portland Trail Blazers said, "I definitely feel the next season is in jeopardy."

The two sides reached tentative labor agreement in June, only to have players, spurred on by the dissident group led by Ewing and Jordan, table a vote on it and send the union back to the bargaining table. At issue was a luxury tax, which would be triggered when certain contracts exceed the salary cap.

Following the players' failure to ratify the proposal, a six-year contract containing more than $5 billion in salaries and benefits, the NBA began the lockout.

In Thursday's negotiations, the union was seeking the elimination of the luxury tax and loopholes for teams that go over the approximately $23 millon salary cap.

Although Stern said the league offered to eliminate the luxury tax provision entirely, Williams contended the owners merely proposed an alternative that would keep the salary cap a hard cap.

The league said it agreed to the players' proposal that 50 percent of an injured player's salary could be used to sign another player.

The players wanted a provision to allow players who have played for the same team for two years to re-sign at double their previous salaries. The league offered a 50 percent increase, deputy commissioner Russ Granik said.

The NBA proposed granting teams a salary cap exception that would reach $1 million by the end of the six-year deal, while the union was seeking a $1.5 million exception.

"They were not willing to make any counterprosals to the deal," Granik said.

Players attending the meeting were New York's Charles Smith and Herb Williams, Utah's John Crotty, Cleveland's Danny Ferry, Houston's Kenny Smith, Portland's Terry Porter, Atlanta's Andrew Lang, Sacramento's Tyrone Corbin, Dallas' Jim Jackson, Indiana's Vern Fleming and Denver's LaPhonso Ellis.

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